As House Democrats work behind closed doors to shore up support on a major energy and climate bill, agriculture groups are pleading for major changes to make it more palatable in farm states.
Representatives from two major farm groups told the House Small Business Committee yesterday that the bill should include a bigger role for the Agriculture Department and more offsets for farmers.
Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said she would work to convey the concerns of farmers and small businesses to Energy and Commerce Committee leaders drafting the sweeping measure. "Something is going to happen, and we have to make sure the concerns of the small business sector are discussed," said Velázquez, who plans to send the Energy Committee a list of recommendations in the coming weeks.
A system to cap carbon emissions presents both an opportunity and potential pitfall for farmers. Fred Yoder of the National Corn Growers Association said carbon caps would likely cause increased input costs for farmers. Fertilizer prices -- which track the cost of oil and natural gas and have seen major increases over the past year -- could go up even more under a climate bill, he said.
"Our costs are going to go up even if agriculture remains an uncapped entity -- we will be profoundly impacted by everyone else's carbon," Yoder said. "Really what we are looking for is an offset to bring back some of those extra costs."
The potential boon for farmers in climate legislation would be if they could get payments for their conservation efforts to trap greenhouse gas emissions. Farm groups are calling on Congress to give agriculture a significant portion of offsets in the bill.
"It scares all farmers about viability," Yoder told the panel. "If we're going to go down this road, we have to have some kind of mechanism to offset costs."
The issue of carbon offsets in the bill has caused some anxiety among advocacy groups. Offsets refer to projects that would indirectly cut heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere -- such as funding mass plantings of trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, practicing "no-till" farming or installing equipment to capture methane from animal feedlots. Companies could invest in some of these green-energy projects to offset their own emissions.
Opponents of offsets think they could create a loophole for businesses to skirt pollution controls. The draft bill from Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) includes a major role for offsets in an attempt to lower the cost of climate regulations.
But their draft bill does not specify what types of clean-energy projects are eligible. Instead, it gives U.S. EPA up to two years after enactment to decide which types of clean-energy initiatives receive a thumbs up from the federal government.
The vague language is of some concern to farm groups, who want lawmakers to specify that agriculture can receive a portion of the carbon credits. The seemingly small issue of agriculture offsets was a major conflict in last year's negotiations over the proposed Senate climate bill, where the issue was of major concern to Midwestern lawmakers (ClimateWire, April 9).
USDA vs. EPA
Farm groups told the Small Business Committee yesterday that they also want the climate bill to give oversight of any farm offset program to the Agriculture Department, which already has expertise in working with agriculture and farmland conservation programs.
"We believe really strongly that the law needs to require that USDA is the one who writes the standards for offsets -- establishes the criteria for them, provides technical assistance to farmers and all those sorts of things," said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union.
Johnson told the panel his group does not want to see EPA dealing with qualifications for farm programs, though he said they could support a larger oversight role for EPA over the cap-and-trade system.
"If Congress were to pass something that has EPA doing all of that relative to offsets for agriculture, a lot of our members would be -- frightened might be a little too strong but they would be very, very concerned," Johnson said. "We would much prefer to work with USDA, that is where the expertise is."